Wednesday, July 17, 2013

If your garden hasn't washed away in the rain, it's tomato canning time!

My tomatoes are ripening on the vines, and in the next week or so, provided some disease doesn’t strike the plants, some critter doesn’t destroy them, or the recent monsoon rains don't wash them away, I’ll begin canning tomatoes.  I know I’m a strange tomato-grower:  I don’t eat many raw tomatoes but I do enjoy sauces made of cooked tomatoes.  My girls love raw tomatoes and visit the garden with excitement each day to pick and to eat some of the “baby” tomatoes I grow for them. 

Here's a salad my girls made from tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese and blackberries, with a little thyme and creeping Jenny (which we didn't eat) for a garnish.  My oldest daughter was excited that I let her use a sharp knife for the first time to halve the tomatoes.

For the past couple of years I have not purchased canned tomatoes from the grocery store because I have managed to can enough tomatoes to last all winter.  Home-canned tomatoes taste better than store-bought, and  I read that the lining of the containers of commercially canned tomatoes are made of BPA, or bisphenol A, a chemical that leaches into foods and may contribute to many serious diseases.  According to Green Century.com, some food companies, including ConAgra and H.J. Heinz, have begun removing BPA from their packaging, and so canned goods may be safer than they were a few years ago.

Try to can tomatoes, beans, jelly, or other foods this summer from your garden and enjoy some self-sufficiency and safe food during the rest of the year.  If you have never canned anything, the easiest thing to try is jelly or jam.  To make jam or jelly, you don’t need a pressure canner because the sugar in the jam preserves it, but to can beans or other vegetables, you need a pressure canner.  The pressure applied by the canner causes the food to boil at a higher temperature than it can boil on an open stove, and the higher temperature kills bacteria that might otherwise survive cooking.  Many people can tomatoes using a hot water bath, because the acidity in the tomatoes prevents bacterial growth in the food, but I can them with a pressure canner.

Finished tomatoes ready for winter
Using a pressure canner scares people.  Ask around and you’ll find stories of ceilings decorated with turnip greens and exploding food.  Provided your pressure canner operates correctly, and you follow directions with vigilance, canning food is safe.  I don’t usually follow directions precisely when I cook, but I check the instructions multiple times while I am canning food. 

My mother’s pressure canner has a gauge on it that measures the pressure, and when we were children, she asked my sister and me to watch the gauge for her while she did some other work so we could tell her if the pressure got too high.  I remember being afraid it would explode, but it never did.  

Mine rattles louder as the pressure increases, and it’s nice to be able to step away from it while knowing that it’s working correctly. It’s important to maintain a steady temperature under the pressure canner so that the pressure remains relatively stable; fluctuations in pressure will disrupt the canning process.  This is easy on gas or electric ranges, but both of my grandmothers canned food on wood stoves.  The next time you complain about a hot kitchen, or hot weather in general, first imagine being able to build a fire that burns steadily enough to cook food, or to operate a canner, and then think about cooking food, in an unairconditioned house, on the wood stove during July.  You, or someone in the family, cut the wood to build the fire, grew the food, and cooked it.  No wonder grandmas want you to eat all the food on your plate: they know the amount of work needed to get it to your plate.

In this post I gave more detailed instructions on canning, and this website gives many recipes and directions for canning.  Enjoy!


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